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Epic battles and lovers’ quarrels

Crossover comic Scott Pilgrim tempers graphic violence with indie romance

It seems like literally every nerd or geek – and the hipsters who mimic them – are fans of the Scott Pilgrim graphic novel series. The series is what Watchmen promised to be: a crossover success, an independent comic that sits besides Superman in the comics shop and also makes the pages of Entertainment Weekly. Published almost annually since 2004, the series is released by Oni Press in $12 black-and-white volumes.

Cartoonist Bryan Lee O’Malley, originally from Ontario, says he conceived the character while he was in his twenties, living in Toronto with a gay roommate and trying to impress his girlfriend. At the beginning of the series, the protagonist, Scott Pilgrim, is 23, sharing a bed with his gay roommate and chasing after an American girl.

When Scott encounters Ramona Flowers, an delivery girl from New York City, it’s love at first sight, as seems to be the case whenever a Canadian meets a New Yorker. Scott learns that to keep the mysterious Ramona, he must defeat her seven evil ex-boyfriends in battles reminiscent of old-school video-games like Super Mario and Mortal Kombat. Allusions to video-games and comic books abound, and O’Malley employs these nerdy references both to pander to his audience and poke fun at them. In the latest volume, Scott Pilgrim vs. the Universe, Ramona is clearly peeved when Scott recounts old X-Men storylines for her; nerds will appreciate the reference, and their girlfriends will get the joke.

Scott Pilgrim is an all-too-rare saga mixing humour and action with an absorbing plot and dynamic characters, ensuring that readers come back for more. The comic book references were omnipresent when the series began – Scott’s ex-girlfriend and Ramona battle with samurai swords in the Toronto Reference Library for 20 pages in Volume Two – but by the third book, more emotive scenes – like Scott’s haunting flashbacks to his break-up with his last serious girlfriend – gradually dominate the narrative.

This is most apparent in the newest volume, the fifth and penultimate. By now readers have grown accustomed to Scott’s exploits, so O’Malley puts action in the back seat: Scott’s battles with Ramona’s evil ex-boyfriends barely peek out of the corners of panels as other characters gossip and bond at a party. Here, O’Malley proves that he excels in crafting relatable character moments. A scene of three friends drinking themselves silly might sound banal, but lends a lot more authenticity to characters than any Juno fast talk or pages of introspection could.

Perhaps the main character of the series is in fact the city of Toronto. Scott and company interact with the urban landscape more than anything else, providing O’Malley set pieces for his narrative. A battle to the death in Volume Three takes place amidst “the stark existential horror of [clothing store] Honest Ed’s,” a Toronto staple that confounds visitors and locals alike. By placing his characters in front of real settings, from the shops of Queen St. to bars like Sneaky Dee’s, O’Malley adds authenticity to his narrative. These background details don’t distract from the story, but add to its relatability by showing that the characters live in a breathing world and not some anonymous cityscape erected to fill space.

Just this month, filming for a feature film adaptation of the whole series began on location in Toronto. With indie darling Michael Cera in the lead role and a host of other big-name actors lining up to do their part, the comic is now guaranteed the attention that nerds hoped for with Watchmen. Fans of the series fear the film by director Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Grindhouse) will be just another “quirky indie comedy” but that’s really what Scott Pilgrim has been all along, just with manga-inspired visuals and word balloons instead of a hip soundtrack. If Watchmen failed to be a crossover hit because it was sunken in comic’s past, then O’Malley is the ideal ambassador of the art form as of now.